And so Jesus said to them, “come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Gosh, that was easy, wasn’t it? He called them, and they followed.
I don’t mean it was easy for Jesus – he is the Messiah after all, that must give you a certain amount of pulling power. I mean was easy for James and John. They don’t think about it, they don’t struggle with it, they don’t worry about it. Their faith was immediate and complete.
I wish my faith could be like that. Simple, immediate, complete.
Our reading from Jonah doesn’t make me feel any better. Jonah goes to the people of Nineveh, an ungodly and disreputable lot, and says “Yahweh says you have to repent, and amend your ways” and they say “Yes, okay, we’ll do that.” Jonah, who seems to find obedience to God quite difficult, is rather put out. It all seems far too easy.
If that is what faith is, the unquestioning immediate simple faith of James and John and the people ofNineveh, then I’m afraid I am a person of little faith.
My faith has never been unquestioning acceptance. I’m far more fidgety than that. I’m fear if Jesus said “come follow me”, my immediate reaction would be “where, why, and for how long”.
Faith for me used to feel like waiting for a bus. Do you trust that there is a bus coming that will carry you home, or do you put your trust in your own abilities, and walk?
When I was growing up inYorkshire, I lived a fair way from school, and busses were few and far between, especially if one had extra-curricular activity – or as the teachers put it, detention.
On a cold winter’s evening, I would wonder about walking to the next bus stop. That would save me 20p and hypothermia. But if I walked, maybe I would miss the bus? The longer I waited, the more I thought, “If I’d walked, I’d be there now.” But also the longer I waited, the more likely it would be that the bus would come. And so of course what normally happened was I would start walking, and half way in between stops, I would see the bus sailing past, leaving me repeat the process at the next stop.
That was my sort of fidgety faith. I wanted to trust that the bus was coming, but the reality was different. And I wanted to believe in God without doubts, Oh how I wanted that, but I couldn’t. Hoping, but not sure?
Now my Grandmother, who like many of her peers would happily stand chatting at a bus stop for hours, she literally could not understand the idea of doubting the existence of God. She had absolute faith – In god, and in the West Yorkshire bus timetabling system. She was like James and John. God called, she followed. No doubt.
I yearned for a faith like then when I was growing up, and for a while I even tried to fake a faith like that, in the hope that it might just come. But it never did.
And you know, that’s all right. It’s alright. For a long time I thought it wasn’t, but it is. I thought I should be like James and John and the people of Nineveh, I felt they had been given a gift which I didn’t have, and indeed they had been given a gift I didn’t have. But in later years, I realised that I had been given a gift they had not. Which was the gift of doubt.
I am how God made me, and the way God made me is inquisitive, questioning, doubting, sceptical. And the point where I stopped feeling that my faith was inadequate was the point where I stopped yearning for the gifts that God had given to others, and instead accepted the gifts that God had given to me. If God made me this way, and God loves me this way, then maybe it’s all right. That was the point that I started being me, and stopped trying to be an Apostle.
But what can faith mean in this context? If it is not the simple anc complete acceptance of James and John, what it faith?
I suppose a lesser faith leaves the door open for a sort of agnosticism, where we declare an open mind on the subject of God. It’s good to have an open mind. But not so open that your brains fall out. Paul warns us against such equivocation in our second reading. The appointed time, he says, is growing short. Or in other words, make up your mind. That’s the problem with agnosticism, sympathetic as I am to it – it’s just delaying making a decision. You’re neither waiting for the bus nor walking home. You get no-where.
So what is this faith of doubters? Well it is for example, the faith of Thomas Aquinas, one of our greatest theologians. At nearly the end of his life, Thomas had a revelation of God, and said, “everything I have written seems like so much straw to me.”
But that straw, those intellectual endeavours, saved the church from superstition, from the Goddess worship of Mary, they gave the church a rigorous intellectual justification for faith. Without Aquinas’ doubts, his honesty, his lack of simple faith, the church would be a sorrier, sillier, more fanciful, weaker place.
The faith of doubters, is an act of will, not a gift from God. We choose to commit, despite not receiving the reassurance of revelation. That sort of faith requires trust, and hope, but more than that honesty, courage, rigour, and staying power. It is a faith which will challenge the church, and it’s notions of God – which is necessary, because sometimes the church needs challenging. Our doubt and our commitment means that we will be honest with ourselves and with God and with the people around us. And that indeed is a gift worth celebrating.
So let me leave you with that famous quote from Simone Weil, the French theologian and philosopher.
If ever there is a seeming disparity between God and the truth, then we must always pick the truth. Because in the long run, disloyalty to the truth will always be disloyalty to God.
May we have the courage to seek the truth, to question, to doubt. That the church and the world may be the richer for it.